Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
Last Friday, at UFC Fight Night 50, Ben Rothwell scored one of the most significant upsets of the evening with a first-round pummeling of polarizing heavyweight striker, Alistair Overeem. Despite breaking his own arm in early moments of the fight, the underdog abruptly sealed the deal with a cannon-like punch—with the same arm. And while the win will undoubtedly breathe some new life into the hot-and-cold career of Big Ben, it was perhaps not the best result for the health of the heavyweight division as a whole.
In leveling Overeem, Rothwell may have scored the biggest win of his veteran career, but he also—through no fault of his own—shook up an extremely fragile heavyweight pecking order. Overeem, you see, was one of the few men left in a very short line of heavyweight contenders. With his loss, the immediate future of the heavyweight title has become muddled. We know that Cain Velasquez will defend the title against the surging Fabricio Werdum at UFC 180, but beyond that, things are not so clear. It appears that we’ve entered a heavyweight drought, yet challengers for the winner of Velasquez-Werdum must be provided all the same. Who, though, might rise to the occasion?
The most deserving name in the hat is Stipe Miocic. Miocic, who has lost just once, is riding a three-fight win-streak, including noteworthy victories over Roy Nelson and Gabriel Gonzaga. It’s a modest streak, but a streak all the same, and is undoubtedly the strongest in the heavyweight top-ten (excluding those of Velasquez and Werdum). Miocic is on a tear.
But in a bit of strange matchmaking it appears that he’s being paired with the definitive number two heavyweight, Junior “Cigano” Dos Santos. And when the fight is signed, it’s likely that Miocic will be a substantial underdog. Despite the considerable skill of the Croatian-American, there’s a good chance he’ll be flattened by one of Cigano’s locomotive limbs. This has been the fate of a good portion of the Brazilian’s past opponents. But a victory for Dos Santos, unfortunately, does not really move things along in the heavyweight division.
The glaring problem with a JDS win is that he has already fought Velasquez three times—all within the last two years. And while he did win the first fight, the violent beatings he took at the hands of the champ in their second and third fights erased any desire for a fourth matchup of the two. Not anytime soon, at least. So Cigano’s title hopes now hinge on Werdum upsetting the champ, and for the moment, that’s a hypothetical. Furthermore, if Miocic does upset Dos Santos, we’re still left with very few names atop the heavyweight division.
In light of that fact, it appears that in many ways the UFC needed Overeem to win. With a victory over Rothwell, he’d be on a two-fight streak. Given his hulking physique and mass-appeal, that may have been enough to erase the memory of his embarrassing knockout losses to Antonio Silva and Travis Browne, and sell him as a bona fide contender. But no such luck. Big Ben played the spoiler.
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
So, who else is there? Beyond the Miocic-Dos Santos puzzle, which fighters are closest to a tango with the savage champion Velasquez or his crafty challenger, Werdum? That’s a difficult question to answer.
After his win at UFC Fight Night 50, an obvious choice might be Ben Rothwell. But Rothwell’s UFC debut was against Velasquez, and it was not pretty. Big Ben got a chance to show off his chin in the fight, but not much else, as the future champ treated him like a chew toy until the referee was forced to intervene. Sure, it’s possible Rothwell may one day justify a second fight with Velasquez, or more reasonably with a victorious Werdum, but his recent losses to Gabriel Gonzaga and Mark Hunt still hang in the rear view mirror. In spite of his massive win over Overeem, Big Ben still has some work to do.
With Rothwell excluded, who can make a case for a crack at the ultimate heavyweight prize? Which other top-ten heavies are riding win-streaks? For one, there’s another grizzled veteran in Andrei Arlovski, who just rejoined the UFC after lengthy employs by other organizations. Arlovski is on a three-fight win-streak, but only one of those wins has been in the UFC, and that win, a split decision win over Brendan Schaub, was fairly contestable. Schaub, among others, would argue that Arlovski did not win at all. Regardless of how the fight is viewed in retrospect, Arlovski does not appear to be there yet. And of course, he’ll have his hands full with a hard-hitting Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva in a few short days.
That, of course, brings us to Bigfoot. If he can stop Arlovski, it’ll be his first win since his legendary draw with Mark Hunt. If Fabricio Werdum beats Cain Velasquez, a victorious Bigfoot might not be far from a title shot. He wouldn’t be there yet, but could be within striking distance. Yet if Velasquez successfully defends his title at UFC 180, as the odds suggest he will, Bigfoot will be miles from a shot at gold, regardless of the outcome of his fight with Arlovski. He’s already fought Velasquez twice, losing by first-round TKOs on both occasions.
Beyond those fighters, there are a handful of talented fighters riding losses, such as Travis Browne. Browne had all the looks of a contender until a few months ago, when Werdum beat him up for five, one-sided rounds at UFC on Fox 11. With another few wins, Browne might earn his shot. But with no fight signed, that’s not an imminent possibility.
Then, of course, there’s Josh Barnett, who was recently knocked out by Browne. He might be able to wiggle his way into a title shot with a few wins, but he recently scored the heavyweight title in Metamoris, and seems content to focus on grappling-based endeavors for now. He’s not getting a UFC title shot anytime soon.
Evidently, the pickings are slim at heavyweight. As a result, we may well find ourselves in a “beggars can’t be choosers” situation. With Overeem’s loss, a handful of fighters who would otherwise not be especially deserving of title shots now seem reasonably close.
Perhaps the best examples of this are the two men who comprise the main event of the UFC’s upcoming return to Japan, Roy Nelson and Mark Hunt. Sure, neither fighter is on much of a win-streak. Nelson is riding two wins, while Hunt’s last two fights are a draw and a loss. But given the inherent lack of contenders in their division, it’s possible that the winner of their encounter might be in line for a title shot. Surprisingly, beyond the Miocic-Dos Santos pairing, the doughy sluggers might just be the most logical guys for the job. It’s not that they’re particularly deserving of that honor, it’s that, for the moment, they seem to be more deserving than anybody else. And given their iron chins, savage power, and cult followings, neither would be a difficult challenger to market. However, with no intention of disparaging either man, the idea of the pair fighting for number-one contendership illustrates just how strong the champion is.
Suddenly, it’s a strange time to be a UFC heavyweight. It’s a notoriously shallow division, and while its pulse has strengthened with the additions of killers like Velasquez and Dos Santos, and Strikeforce imports like Werdum and Bigfoot, it’s still got a lot of room to grow. It’s a division of peaks and valleys, and unfortunately, with Overeem’s loss, we appear to embarking on a trek through the latter. I'm sure it won’t last long.
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